At Shipley's Choice Elementary— one of the highest-achieving schools in the Baltimore region — the important state test is almost not relevant to what is going on in the classroom anymore.
"I believe the [Maryland School Assessment] is not a great challenge for the boys and girls at Shipley. Their ability levels are higher than MSA," said Principal Rocco Ferretti. "We are not drilling the skills. ... Our boys and girls are doing things that don't look anything like the test."
Nearly 90 percent of elementary students in Maryland are passing the statewide tests, and 229 schools in Baltimore City and the five surrounding counties have at least a 90 percent pass rate, according to an analysis of Maryland State Department of Education data by The Baltimore Sun.
Shipley's Choice, which is in Millersville, is one of the schools at the top. It has 100 percent of its students passing, and the highest percentage of students scoring in the advanced category.
Rodgers Forge Elementary near Towson also had 100 percent of students who passed the test, one of three elementaries in Baltimore County that were in the top dozen performing schools in the region. (Chadwick and Hillcrest elementaries were the others.)
Central, Benfield, Severna Park, Mayo and Jones elementaries in Anne Arundel, Youth's Benefit in Harford County and Piney Ridge in Carroll County were also in the top dozen. The top Howard County school was Clarksville Elementary, which came in 12th. The top-ranked middle school was Folly Quarter in Howard.
Schools in the rankings were separated by only tenths of a percentage-point difference in pass rates. In effect, the schools are all among dozens across the state that have essentially satisfied the mandate of the federal law that required all children to pass the tests by 2014.
Many of these schools have a small percentage of low-income students, minorities and students who don't speak English as their first language. Only 1 percent of students at Shipley's Choice qualify as low-income, compared with 43 percent statewide and more than 80 percent in the city. At many schools in the city and the region, students still struggle to pass the tests.
Medfield Heights Elementary is one of those in Baltimore doing well. It has a 58 percent low-income population and a high number of special-education students. The school has 96.4 percent of its students passing, the highest of any Baltimore City school.
"We don't focus on the MSA. We focus on good instruction. We feel the MSA is kind of a minimal indicator of competency," Principal Anthony Japzon said.
Japzon said he doesn't talk to students about the MSAs during the school year. He said he is more focused on making sure he hires good teachers and then doesn't try to micromanage their teaching. In the past four years, he has interviewed four or five teachers for every opening. The applicants are interviewed by a group of teachers and administrators at the school, which then makes the hiring decisions, he said.
That isn't to say Japzon and Ferretti aren't focused on the results of the tests. Both could recite the statistical minutiae of their scores and said they make sure the state curriculum is taught.
Beyond those constraints, teachers are free to be creative. Ferretti said teachers often use the Socratic method of teaching, even with young children, who are asked to debate issues and defend their views in class discussions.
Missy Fanshaw, principal of Rodgers Forge, said that though the staff doesn't emphasize the test, her teachers still look very closely at the data for individual students who may need more support or help improving.
In a ranking of schools based on the percentage of students who scored in the advanced category on the tests, five Anne Arundel County elementaries topped the list. The sixth-ranking school was Riderwood Elementary in Baltimore County.
With a seasoned teaching corps and students who come to school prepared, Riderwood Principal Kathy DeHart said, the school has been able to push students ahead. More than 60 percent of the school's third- through fifth-graders are in classes for gifted and talented students. Those classes are taught a curriculum that is about a year ahead of their grade level, she said.
MSA school rankings
The following schools in the Baltimore area had the highest percentage of students who passed. To see more rankings, go to baltimoresun.com.
Shipley's Choice, Arundel 100%
Rodgers Forge, Baltimore County 100%
Severna Park, Arundel: 99.5%
Chadwick: Baltimore County: 99.4%
Mayo, Arundel: 99.3%
Folly Quarter, Howard: 98.0%
Mount View, Howard: 97.9%
Severna Park, Arundel: 97.9%
Chesapeake Science Point, Arundel: 97.5%
Clarksville, Howard: 97.5%